I have been thinking lately about the Christian symbol of the crucifix. It is almost always seen in settings that attempt to create a mood of peace, calm and serenity: on the walls of churches, in the patients’ rooms in Catholic-run hospitals, in funeral parlors and cemeteries, to name a few.
The ubiquity and familiarity of this icon, I think, often blinds people to what a brutal thing it is. What the cross merely suggests, the crucifix makes explicit. Look at one, or imagine it, and see clearly what it represents: a living man writhing in agony, nailed to beams of rough wood by sharp iron spikes pounded through his hands and feet, left to hang and die a slow and painful death from blood loss, suffocation, and exposure. Crucifixion was intended to be the most agonizing and horrible manner of death imaginable, to serve as a frightening warning to those who would rebel against its inventors. And yet we commemorate this emblem of torture and gory death, with depictions of it in every church, and consider it a source of solace to the suffering and the bereaved. More so, we are told that this horrific act is the linchpin of God’s plan for human salvation, as if supreme love and forgiveness had no choice but to work through a vehicle of almost unimaginable brutality.
This strange intermingling of loving words and peaceful wishes with imagery of horrendous violence is not confined to funerals and other services where the crucifix figures prominently. On the contrary, it is a pervasive theme in religion in general, and Judeo-Christian religion specifically. In “A Book of Blood“, I wrote that because most believers have never read the Bible in its entirety, they are unaware that the familiar passages of love and peace which are so often quoted are not representative of the whole book. On the contrary, these verses are merely islands in a sea of bloodshed, cruelty and hatred in the name of God.
Consider one of the most famous excerpts from the Bible, the 23rd Psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The gentle and peaceful pastoral imagery of this verse has given comfort to millions of mourners throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity, and there is indeed much beauty in these simple words. But now see some of the other words which the Psalmist spoke and which are recorded in the same book:
Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth… let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun…. The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
(Note: Is this a wish that the psalmist’s enemies had been miscarried?)
He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
These wishes of hate and violence – smashing the heathens with an iron rod, tearing and cutting them into pieces, breaking their teeth in their mouths, crushing their children against stones, filling the world with their dead bodies, while all the while the righteous celebrate and rejoice over the bloodshed – are a world away from the peaceful images of the 23rd Psalm. Yet the two are found together in the same book, and according to some theists, are the product of the same writer.
Another frequently quoted passage can be found in 1 Corinthians 13 (RSV translation):
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
…Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…. faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Again, these are beautiful and moving words. But now consider another passage attributed to the same writer from the same book:
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
—1 Corinthians 14:34-35
These ugly words of prejudice, so sharply at odds with the above advice on love, have been used to justify two thousand years of systematic oppression and mistreatment of women in the Christian tradition. Even today, women are barred from roles of leadership and authority in many of the world’s major Christian denominations because of this passage.
Other epistles attributed to Paul of Tarsus contain verses possibly even more vicious and hateful. Consider this passage from the second epistle to the Thessalonians, in which he expresses the bloodcurdling wish that all non-Christians be consigned to an eternity of torment in hellfire:
And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
—2 Thessalonians 1:7-9
And then there is this passage in which Paul instructs slaves to obey their owners. Advice such as this was used by generations of preachers to defend one of humanity’s most evil inventions ever by claiming that it was a just and proper institution ordained by God.
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.
The popular impression that the Bible is a good and moral book is is a highly misleading one, produced by selectively emphasizing the few uplifting parts and neglecting or glossing over the more numerous horrifying ones. A more balanced and accurate view, however, would see the Bible for what it is: an anachronistic holdover, a relic of a far more superstitious and savage time that has survived until today. Though it contains the seeds of some good moral ideas, they are thoroughly mixed in with violent and abhorrent ones, and it has taken centuries of moral progress to sift the good ideas from the bad.
I do not mean to suggest that ordinary lay believers are to blame for creating this misleading impression. After all, most of them have never even read the Bible. If there is anyone who bears responsibility, it is the clergy and the theologians who are aware of the Bible’s ugly side and try to downplay or excuse it. But in any case, believers everywhere should be informed exactly what it is that they are believing in. We atheists should make it clear that, contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not a book of love.